Sherman’s March, March 5, 1865: It “rained…shells very promiscuously” in Cheraw; Federals turned back at Florence

On March 5, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman gave marching instructions for his wing commanders for movements beyond the PeeDee River to the next major objective – Fayetteville, North Carolina.  Writing from Cheraw, Sherman outlined the scheme of maneuver to Major-General Henry Slocum of the Left Wing:

Let General [Jefferson C.] Davis lead into Fayetteville, holding the Twentieth in support with the cavalry on his left rear.  I will hold General Howard back, but close enough to come up if Joe Johnston wants to fight.  I will now fight him if he dares, and therefore wish to act on that idea, keeping each corps ready to hold the enemy if he appears in force on your left, but his strength must be developed before other corps are called from their roads.

Orders to Major-General Oliver O. Howard, with the Right Wing, sent the previous day, were similar, except the two commanders agreed to implement slow marches instead of halting at any one particular place (to allow for easier foraging in the sparse pine barrens).  Sherman described the scheme of maneuver as such “that the columns may assume an echelon towards the north.”  This arrangement, leading with the left while holding the right back for the punch, was the framework for a grand movement to contact.  But the disadvantage to the order of march was one corps would always be exposed to the possibility of being isolated and destroyed.

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Movements on March 5, 1865 were not great marches, but rather constrained by the need to get across the PeeDee in good order.  On the Left Wing, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis expended more curse words and condemnations towards the pontoon train’s leadership.  Work constructing a bridge at Haile’s (or Pegues’) Ferry progressed.  But lack of boats forced the engineers to improvise.  Wagons, wrapped in canvas, became makeshift pontoons.  The Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps remained in camp.

The Right Wing expanded the bridgehead across the PeeDee on the 5th. The remainder of the Seventeenth Corps crossed and moved to the right.  Most of the Fifteenth Corps, save a rear guard in Cheraw, crossed.  The “big” event in Cheraw, however, was not the crossing, but rather a large explosion.  The Confederates had left Cheraw in such haste that large quantities of munitions (much of it from Charleston, originally) were left behind.  With orders to destroy what could not be used or carried, Federal details began stacking powder kegs and other ordnance in a ravine.  The hope was exposure to water in the creek there would render the powder inert.  This proved a tragic decision, as recorded by the 1st Missouri Engineers:

In camp at Cheraw, waiting the passage of the troops across the Great Peedee River.  Details were employed fitting artillery wagon wheels to the boat wagons.  A great many of these wheels were found here, left by the enemy, as well as a large amount of ordnance stores, powder, shells, etc. This was all dumpted in a ravine through which a creek flowed. The ravine was filled and piled up ten or twelve feet deep until even with the banks – thirty-six thousand pounds of it.  There was not water enough in the creek to dampen all the mass of powder and shells, and our infantry soldiers were amusing themselves with taking the dry powder some two hundred yards to their cook fire and exploding it, carrying it in their hands.  The ravine was visited so often and the powder carried so loosely that after a time a train was formed reaching back to the ravine, and as a pile was exploded the fire ran back in the trail to the mass and it all went off with a terrible noise, and it rained around there for a half-mile shells and pieces of shells very promiscuously for a minute or so.

Though the explosion had enough force to damage houses all around Cheraw, only a handful of men were killed.  Still, this was a sad repetition of events seen at Charleston and Columbia.  Loose powder and fire never mix well.

Further south, Colonel Reuben Williams had his detail up early on the morning of the 5th on their way to Darlington and eventually Florence.

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Between Dove’s Station and Darlington, the mounted infantry burned several trestle bridges.  On arrival in Darlington, the Federals destroyed the depot, 250 bales of cotton, and a printing office.  Proceeding south out of Darlington, scouts reported a train heading north from Florence.  Williams took up dispositions to ambush the train.

The Twenty-ninth Missouri being in the advance immediately deployed on the side of the track for the purpose of capturing it as soon as it came up. The engineer, however, must have discovered us, as the train was turned back to Florence.

Opportunity missed, Williams pressed forward on the appointed task, burning trestles along the way to Florence.  Two miles outside of their destination, the Federals met skirmishers.

I immediately formed the command in line, with a proper reserve, and ordered a charge, which was made in good style, some of the men gaining the depot building, but were unable either to hold or fire it. About this time the enemy re-enforced his left with infantry and drove back our right in some disorder. I had in the meantime thrown the Seventh Illinois on the left of the line to prevent a flank movement which I discovered was being made by the enemy. I here received notice from an officer who was on picket on the railroad to my rear that a train was coming from the direction of Kingsville, and a few minutes later I was informed that a party of about 400 men, with artillery, were getting off the train. Finding that I was outflanked and outnumbered by the enemy, and with a force of 400 moving in my rear, I concluded to withdraw the command and at once proceeded to do so. I fell back in good order, leaving the Ninth Illinois to cover the rear and proceeded in the direction of Darlington.

The Confederate commander of the forces defending Florence was Brigadier-General Beverly Robertson.  This was part of a brigade, which at the first of the month had been facing the Federals in the John’s Island sector.  Withdrawn north with the rest of the Charleston garrison, Robertson’s men were cut off from the main body when the Federals occupied Cheraw.  With the reinforcements, the defenders likely numbered around 1,400, and included a battery (Williams said ten pieces) of artillery and a cavalry detachment.  Recall that Williams’ force numbered only 546 men.

Robertson pressed Williams very hard, hitting the rear guard “two or three times between Florence and Darlington.” The pressure was so great that Williams opted to move over Black Creek in order to set a defensive line for the evening.  But Robertson continued to threaten the Federals even after dark.

About 8 p.m. the pickets informed me that the enemy was moving across Black Creek, on my left, in force, and the report was confirmed by negroes who came into our lines. The evident object of this move was to reach Society Hill before us and cut us off at that point, which, if successful, would necessitate a long march to the left before I could return. I therefore concluded to at once move to Society Hill, which I did, arriving there at 12 m. on the night of the 5th.

From Society Hill, Williams moved back to Cheraw on the 6th without incident.  Summarizing the raid, Williams counted the damage inflicted and losses suffered:

The results of the expedition may be summed up as follows: The destruction of 500 yards of trestle-work, 2 depots, 11 freight and 4 passenger cars, 4,000 pounds bacon, 80 bushels wheat, 50 sacks corn, 250 bales of cotton, 1 printing office, 1 caisson and battery wagon, 30 stand of small-arms, and the capture of 31 prisoners. Our casualties are 7 wounded and 8 missing. A lieutenant and one man are reported to have been captured at Society Hill on our return.

Not bad for such a small force.  But Florence remained an open railroad junction for use by the Confederates.  However the rail lines there were somewhat amputated with no endpoints of strategic value.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 255-6; Part II, Serial 99, pages 676, 691; William A. Neal, An illustrated History of the Missouri Engineer and the 25th Infantry Regiments, Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1889, page 171.)

Sherman’s March, March 4, 1865: Bridging the PeeDee River and an expedition to Florence

Movements on March 4, 1865 placed Major-General William T. Sherman’s forces in position to bound the PeeDee River.  In a letter to Major-General Oliver O. Howard that evening, Sherman again expressed hope that forces out of Wilmington were moving out to points in North Carolina to effect an early juncture.  “I know Grant’s anxiety for us, and he will move heaven and earth to co-operate.”  However, while Sherman speculated that Major-General John Schofield might be near Fayetteville, reality was those columns were no where near that place.   Still, in anticipation of linking up, Sherman instructed, “Get a good scout or two ready for me to send a messenger to Wilmington as soon as any of your heads of column is across the Lumber River.”  Sherman’s intent was to cross the PeeDee, then cross the Lumber, and then reach Fayetteville and the Cape Fear River.  Either there or somewhere beyond, he’d reestablish supply lines for the final push which he hoped would end the war.

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(Yes, I’ve had to switch my base map….)

For the troops, March 4 was another day of “closing up.”  The Seventeenth Corps continued to work in Cheraw, sorting through captured equipment and supplies, destroying Confederate and public property, and foraging.  Despite Major-General Frank Blair’s orders, there were reports of pillaging.  The Fifteenth Corps closed up to Cheraw and went into camp around the city that day.

Looking to the next phase of the operation, Blair ordered Major-General Joseph Mower to cross his division, pending completion of the pontoon bridge.  While waiting, Mower requested mounted men be sent down river “to give warning of the approach of the rebel gun-boat Pedee, should it attempt to come up.”  The gunboat had made an appearance the day before, but it is not clear if the ship had used its guns.   (And a side note, the CSS  PeeDee has made the news of late, as archeologists recover more of the ship’s remains.)  Mower crossed shortly after 3 p.m. and promptly ran into Major-General Matthew Butler’s cavalry again.

The Left Wing concentrated at a point just south of Sneedsborough.  The intent was to cross the PeeDee at Haile’s Ferry.  And once again, it was Major-General Jefferson C. Davis who would run afoul of pontoon problems.

A location was selected for the bridge across the river, and the pontoniers immediately set at work; but again, owing to a want of proper management and energy on the part of the officers and lack of material to lay so long a bridge (920 feet), it was not completed until late in the evening of the 6th.

Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore was unable to direct his pontoon train, due to an attack of rheumatism.  Brigadier-General George Buell again stepped in.  Moore reported:

The bridge was commenced at 1 p.m., the river being 920 feet in width, and, as we only had in train some 820 feet of boat and 460 of balk and chess, we were necessarily compelled to procure a greater portion of material.  The men worked all night, but on account of the rapidity of the stream and considerable difficulty in getting anchors to hold we progressed slowly, and the bridge was finally finished at 3 p.m. [on March 6].

Delays placing this bridge prompted changes to the movements of the Left Wing.

Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry saw more of their Confederate counterparts on the 4th for a change.  Advancing in three columns across the state line, the Federals skirmished at Phillip’s Cross-roads and stopped just sort of Wadesborough.  Another column reached Lebanon Church to the east and turned to Wadesborough.

I would point out that the 4th of March marked a change of temp in the cavalry operations along the march.  While Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton had been in charge of the cavalry since the middle of February, several factors kept him from making a significant impact.  My opinion is that it took Hampton a couple of weeks to get acclimated to the new command and the theater of operations.  But once he did get a handle on this, Hampton hit hard.  These are interesting actions, leading up to March 10.  Eric Whittenberg devoted over 200 pages (not counting conclusions and appendices) describing this aspect of Sherman’s March in detail.  And, not that he needs me shilling his book, but you can pick it up in hardback, paperback, and kindle for a good price.

So, after sending you on a quest for Eric’s book, let me save a little space in today’s installment to focus on a lesser known action involving the mounted arm… this more so mounted infantry than “proper” cavalry.  As the Right Wing closed on Cheraw, Howard organized a separate detail to accomplished one of the secondary objectives set by Sherman.  All the mounted men from the Right Wing were organized under Colonel Reuben Williams for a dash on Florence.  Like Branchville, Florence featured in many Federal schemes earlier in the war which aimed at breaking Confederate railroads.  And in early March 1865, Sherman wanted to prevent Confederates using that junction to speed troops or supplies in response to the movement into North Carolina.

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Williams’ force, numbering 546 men, consisted of the 7th and 9th Illinois Infantry, 29th Missouri Mounted Infantry, and a detachment of foragers under Major Samuel Mahon.  Williams marched out from the crossroads seven miles outside Cheraw at 11 a.m. on the 4th.  That evening, the force went into camp seven miles north of Darlington near Dove’s Station.  The short half-day movement setup a longer march the next day toward Florence.   I’ll pick up the story of this expedition in tomorrow’s installment.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 99, pages 427, 432; Part II, Serial 99, pages 676, 680.)

For the last stretch of sesquicentennial blogging… what do you want to see?

I don’t think we can put a mark on the calendar and say “This is when the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War Ends.”  But at the same time, the surrenders of key armies in Virginia and North Carolina is generally recognized as the point of closure.  As such, my project focused on 150th blogging will likewise start winding down. I’d taken on a “post a day” challenge at the end of December 2010, as part of my personal observance of the Sesquicentennial.  And that will come to a close in the next few months.  Reality is there are about sixty days or so to consider, after which the pace of 150ths slows considerably.   (Again, not to dismiss the surrenders west of the Mississippi.  But there’s a lot of empty dates on the calendar after the end of April.)

There are a lot of areas to explore in regard to the last days of the Civil War.  And if you have been reading for a while now, you know I like to work on some of the lesser worked rows, and in particular where the military history (under the classic definition) edges into some other divisions of history.  I’m mulling over continuing the posts on the Carolinas Campaign through North Carolina.  Unlike that of South Carolina, my perception is that the march through North Carolina has gotten its “due” attention from historians.  I don’t think I can improve upon the work done by Mark Bradley or my friend Eric Wittenberg in regard to the Bentonville Campaign or Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads (respectively).

There are some other subjects that I will put focus on through the spring.  One is the last military campaign into South Carolina, lead by Brigadier-General Edward Potter and consisting largely of USCT, through the state in April.  It’s another “footnote” in the larger story of the Civil War, but one that provides a bridge into the post-war situation in South Carolina.   Another topic I’d like to work in within the “day by day” format is President Jefferson F. Davis’ flight through the Carolinas and Georgia.  The path is well blazed by markers, so that allows me to showcase some of those along the way.

And of course… I will be “in the field” at several events between now and the end of April, from which I’ll do my best at covering here on the blog, on Twitter, and through Facebook.

All that said…. let me ask what you folks who spend a little part of your day reading the “stuff” I post what would be preferable.  More on Uncle Billy’s march?  More on something else?  I’ll offer up a poll here, but feel free to drop a comment if you would like:

I can’t say that my coverage of Lee’s Retreat or Wilson’s Campaign would be set upon the firm grounding of the …well… full appreciation of the ground on which the actions took place… as I’ve been able to offer for the Georgia and South Carolina operations.  But I’d consider taking up the task if the need is great.  That is so long as it does not detract from the two topics (Potter’s South Carolina Campaign and Davis’ flight) mentioned above.